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To navigate holiday returns, watch the clock

Key Points
  • Many big-name retailers have extended return dates or more lenient return policies in place during the holidays, according to ConsumerWorld.org. 
  • But at some stores, the return-by date varies widely by category.
Three kids, two toddler boys and a girl, opening a golden gift box with light coming out of it under a Christmas tree with holiday lights.
Gajus | iStock | Getty Images

Buyer's remorse may be easy to remedy this holiday season — just remember to mark your calendar.

Retailer return policies are more apt to fall on the "nice" list rather than "naughty," according to a new report from advocacy site ConsumerWorld.org, which has studied store return policies around the holidays for the past 15 years.

"Certainly the concept of having an extended holiday return policy seems to be very widespread," said founder Edgar Dworsky.

Many major retailers have deadlines of mid- to late January to return purchases made during the holiday season, he said.

For example, Amazon will accept returns through Jan. 31 for most items shipped Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, ConsumerWorld.org found, while Best Buy has a Jan. 12 returns deadline for most purchases made from Oct. 31 through Dec. 28.

But if a return is on your post-holiday to-do list, make sure you read the policy carefully.

Stores have become more apt to "slice and dice" their return policies by category, Dworsky said, so your timeline may be different for returning clothing versus jewelry versus an appliance. At Macy's, the report notes, the broad deadline is 180 days from purchase — but specific items have return windows of zero, 3, 14, 30, 45, 60 or 120 days.

Day after Christmas, go get all the 50-percent-off deals, but wait a few days before you get in the return line. Everyone will be in a much better mood.
Edgar Dworsky
founder, ConsumerWorld.org

"Even if a store is known for being overly generous, there are still some categories where they are cutting back," Dworsky said — notably, electronics.

Nor are all gadgets treated equally. A retailer may have different policies by brand or subcategory, he said. Target, for example, has a 30-day timeline for many electronics and entertainment items, but only a 15-day window for most Apple products, according to the report.

That policy variation can sometimes work in consumers' favor, too, with some retailers offering extra time for purchases of a store brand (Bed Bath & Beyond), or ones made with a store-brand credit card (Target).

But it's also worth noting that retailers' generosity is typically limited to shoppers who have a receipt (or gift receipt), or whose purchase is otherwise trackable in the retailer's systems. Without proof that you bought an item at that retailer at a specific price, shoppers can typically expect a credit equivalent to the lowest price in recent weeks — if it's accepted at all.

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Holiday Wines

To make sure you know what to expect, confirm the details of the store's return policy online before you head out, said shopping expert Trae Bodge of TrueTrae.com. That can help you figure out your chances of a successful return, and whether you might encounter twists such as restocking charges or return shipping fees. A return might not be worth the effort.

"Weigh your options, and decide if reselling or regifting is a better option for you to get the value back," she said.

It helps to have not just the receipt, but as much of the original packaging and tags as you can find, she said.

"Make sure that what you're returning is in as salable condition as possible," Bodge said.

Another item to pack? Patience. Customer service representatives may have some leeway to bend the policy or accept a return at their discretion, she said — and you can't expect to receive such a favor if you're rude.

To that end, even if the retailer deadline is short, don't try to make returns on Dec. 26. That day, you're likely to find crowds are long and tempers, short, Dworsky said.

"Day after Christmas, go get all the 50-percent-off deals, but wait a few days before you get in the return line," he said. "Everyone will be in a much better mood."

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